How technology is transforming the NFL

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With each season, the NFL continues to incorporate new technology that could change every aspect of the game. From research on player safety to improved in-stadium experience for fans, NFL teams are committing more money to new technology seemingly every day.

Tablet playbooks
Credit: The Big Lead
Tablet playbooks

By September 2012, almost half of the NFL had ditched the old-school, three-ring playbook in favor of Apple’s iPad. Tablets carry some obvious advantages: they’re interactive, they’re collaborative, they can play video, etc.

There are, of course, the disadvantages. Last summer, Denver Broncos linebacker DJ Williams tweeted a photo of a page from the team’s playbook, innocently updating his status by discussing a new position he was trying to learn. The team had Williams delete the tweet soon thereafter.

Credit: Gary Milhoces, USA Today
Concussion sensors

Player safety, specifically concussions and their long-term effects, is undoubtedly the biggest PR issue plaguing the NFL. To try to protect its image without drastically changing the game, the NFL has invested in high-tech protective solutions that can reduce the risk of head injury.

One solution is a skull cap with embedded sensors that players can wear under their helmets, which flashes a red light when a player has suffered a hit that may have caused a concussion.

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Credit: Mark Thiessen, National Geographic
Aggregating helmet data

Another effort to reduce concussions involves research on the types of hits that are likely to cause the most trauma, and how helmets could be re-designed to protect the players from them. To do so, the NFL has commissioned studies from concussion research programs, and is consulting the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) on the technology that goes into the helmets worn by soldiers in combat, National Geographic reported.

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Thigh-pad study

A common myth in football is that leg pads, specifically thigh pads, make a player run slower. It’s long been very common for skill players to go without them, willing to risk leg injuries in exchange for an extra step. So the NFL enacted a new rule this year mandating the use of thigh pads, and enlisted University of Virginia engineers to test pads and collect data to find the most effective. The findings were interesting – some pads were found to be no more effective than a bare thigh, proving the players’ logic right. Ultimately, though, the testing helped identify the safest thigh pad available.

Body-worn GPS

In August 2001, Minnesota Vikings offensive tackle Korey Stringer died as a result of heat stroke suffered during the team’s summer training camp. Until recently, the only way to prevent this kind of tragedy was self-monitoring.

This summer, the Buffalo Bills turned to body-worn GPS tracking devices that monitor each player’s exertion during workouts. The conditioning staff applies the small devices to the players’ shirts before they even get to the stadium, so players don’t even need to remember to put them on.

Credit: STATS
More cameras = bigger data

The NFL may soon employ high-powered surveillance technology to closely monitor its players. And no, it has nothing to do with Aaron Hernandez.

Taking a page from the NBA, the NFL may soon begin using the SportVu system, which employs tiny cameras that can record “each and every move 25 times a second,” according to Fast Company. In the NBA, the data is used to mark the slightest of differences in performance, such as Lebron James’ effectiveness at five feet away from the basket as opposed to three feet. In the NFL, it could effectively change the face of statistics. A SportVu document on the system’s use in soccer claims it could be used in NFL games “in the future.”

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Credit: REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
Advanced statistics

Stat fanatics like Bill James and Nate Silver sparked a statistical revolution in baseball that has since started spreading to other sports. Several NFL teams are crunching numbers on everything from opponents’ defensive alignments to injury likelihood. The Jacksonville Jaguars, for example, combined data on their existing team and historical data to determine which player to draft with their No. 2 overall, coming to the conclusion that top-picked offensive tackles historically perform better than their counterparts drafted in later rounds.

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Credit: REUTERS/Gary Cameron
Electronic health records

Late last year, the NFL announced it was implementing a league-wide electronic health records system. The two-year project will replace paper-based records for all 32 teams and will even go as far as implementing video footage of specific injuries as they occurred.

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SAP and scouting

Similarly, the San Francisco 49ers called on SAP earlier this year to develop a custom, cloud-based application through which team scouts could file information on prospective draft picks. Just as any other enterprise is trying to become more mobile, the 49ers wanted to simplify the way the team could access player evaluations filed by scouts. The app enables scouts and coaches to submit and access prospective player reports from mobile devices, and simplifies the data for coaches who are less proficient with technology.

NFL and the Xbox One
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NFL and the Xbox One

Not to be outdone, Microsoft established its own partnership with the NFL. Much of the focus of the partnership is on the Xbox One, and includes integrating scores, fantasy football apps and Skype. However, Microsoft is also trying to get in on the tablet trend on the sidelines and establish its Surface tablet with a high-profile user base.

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NFL’s $300 million tech, media plan

Earlier in the year, the NFL announced another tech-focused partnership with investment firm Providence Equity Partners on a combined $300 million investment through which the league will explore new technologies that could open new revenue streams.

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Credit: levisstadium.com
49ers new stadium makes beer easier to find

With home entertainment technology improving so rapidly, the NFL needs to do something to keep people interested in watching the games in-person. It’s no surprise that the NFL has announced that Super Bowl L will be held at the new San Francisco 49ers stadium in 2016, which, when it opens in Santa Clara in 2014, will feature Wi-Fi, IPTV, and tablet docks at seats. The 49ers are also reportedly developing an app that will help fans find the shortest lines in the stadium for beer, food, and bathrooms